Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Crisis averted

My mid-PhD blues have been replaced by frantic experimenting and panic, which is much, much better. I got through that rough patch by taking a mental vacation and just accepting the fact that I wasn’t going to get anything brilliant done for a while. I took a few days off and didn’t do any work. For a week or so after that, if something didn’t absolutely have to get done, I didn’t do it. I’d set myself a few (3 or less) small goals for the day and once I accomplished them, I’d let myself off the hook. If I wanted to do more work, I’d do it, but if I didn’t want to, I didn’t force myself. After about 2 weeks of this I started feeling much less depressed about the state of my research and started thinking about some new ideas and directions I could explore.

The timing for this worked out particularly well- coincidentally my bosses were distracted with other things and I couldn’t get access to the equipment I needed until after I was feeling better. When I feel like I’m not making research progress my instinct is always to try to push ahead as much as I can. But perhaps sometimes it’s better to just coast for a bit instead of getting worked up over things that are a very small part of the overall PhD process.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mid-PhD Blues

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I was really busy and then I got less busy and more angry. I think for the first time I have actually been contemplating quitting grad school. At this point getting a PhD is not that much more work than getting a Master’s degree would be, so I’m probably not going to quit, but the number of times per day that I’ve been thinking “screw this” has been increasing. It’s a combination of bureaucracy and nonsense (and bad luck) that’s keeping me from getting access to the equipment I need, feeling like I don’t have my own project or support from the people I need to move what could be my project forward, feeling like I don’t really belong anywhere since I straddle two labs and can easily be ignored by both groups, and just plain old fashioned burn-out. On top of that, when I try to come up with a reason to keep going… I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate which means I’m not even sure that I would need a PhD to do it. I like doing experiments, writing papers, and finishing things, and when circumstances or people get in the way of me doing these things I get really depressed.

Luckily I have a short vacation coming up. I was planning on doing some writing during the vacation but maybe I will just completely take a break. Then again, if I take a break then absolutely no work gets done on my project, which will probably not make me feel better either.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friends and Colleagues

Grad school is a weird time to distinguish friends and colleagues. As an undergrad most of the people I worked with were more or less friends, and when I was working my coworkers were colleagues and that’s it. Now that I’m back in school I have a definite mental divide between people who are friends and those that are colleagues. Friends are people who I have seen or hung out with in a social situation, have had a conversation with about something other than work, and would generally do nice things for, like bring them soup when they’re sick, listen to them complain about their exes for hours at a time, give them a ride somewhere on short notice, or help them move. Coworkers are labmates or others that I work with and may or may not like, but it’s not really too important if I like them or not as long as we can get work done together if we need to. I tend not to do nice things for these people but I also don’t expect that they do nice things for me.

I recently ran into an awkward social situation where a labmate that I consider a colleague and not a friend had something bad happen, and my advisor obliquely suggested I do Something Nice for this person. I thought it was odd, as this particular nice thing is something I would do for a friend but not a colleague, but I just attributed it to the fact that my advisor is a nice person and therefore may assume that everyone does nice things for everyone all the time. I even considered doing this Nice Thing, but thought since the colleague and I don’t get along particularly well, they may not even appreciate or like it if I did this Nice Thing for them. Add to the fact that I live in a different city from my grad school which makes doing this particular Nice Thing complicated, I decided not to do it. And I thought that was that.

Fast forward a few weeks and a friend informs me that apparently some people are annoyed that I didn’t do Nice Thing for the colleague in question. I am amazed, both because apparently the colleague in question would actually appreciate it if I did this Nice Thing, and that other random people are sort of policing and causing drama about whether or not I do a friend-type favor for a colleague. I ended up doing the Nice Thing for the person in question but now I feel a bit unsettled. I don’t know if it’s the tacit implication that I be friends with everyone in my lab, the vague feeling that I’m expected to do Nice Things and take care of people even if I don’t like them because I’m female, or the fact that this points out just how hard it is to keep track of the social climate in my grad school when I live in a different city. It may simply be a difference in expectations between people that have been in school their whole lives and people who have worked for a bit and have developed a friend/colleague divide, or between people who live in the small town my grad school is in and people who live in a big city (i.e. me). I don’t have a good conclusion to this, just the lingering question if I did the right thing at any point in the whole awkward situation.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Agree to Disagree

I work for more than one person in a very complicated arrangement that not even I am sure of the details of. Most of the time this is to my advantage. But recently two people that I consider to be bosses gave me the exact opposite advice on how to run an experiment. Perhaps advice is not strong enough of a term. One boss said that I absolutely must run my upcoming experiment a particular way and started meeting with me to teach me how to do it and providing materials so I could do so. The other boss said that I in no circumstances should run my experiment using the method the first boss was adamant about using. This was really stressing me out. Both bosses could keep me from graduating if they’re unhappy with my work. I feel more loyal to one boss but am more philosophically aligned with the other one. For the first time, I have to make a decision on my own and defend it without being able to just say I’m doing it because my boss told me to, because whichever way I pick I’m going to have to convince a skeptical boss that it’s the right decision.

It’s frightening but exhilarating.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


When I graduate with my PhD I will have taken zero graduate-level courses from women (out of 11 or 12 total courses). I have had a few women in advisory roles, but my thesis committee will also probably not have any women on it. Sometimes I feel like I have an obligation to be a professor, to show young women that it’s possible and help them envision themselves as engineers. But other times I just wonder if the fact that I haven’t personally witnessed it being possible is a warning sign. I have to remember that something being difficult is NOT a good reason to want to do it.

I've heard rumors there are even fewer women in industry, and I don't personally know any with graduate-level technical training. At least on the academic side there are some good female science/engineering prof bloggers writing about their experiences. I haven't found too many bloggers who are women working in industry, or really, women with graduate level training in a STEM field that are working outside of academia. Anyone have any recommendations?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Your advisor is always watching you

Or at least, my advisor is always watching me.  There is an upcoming event on campus and a photo of my advisor features prominently in the promotional posters.  Promotional posters that are approximately every 10 steps along every hallway in my building.  It's no ordinary photo either.  He looks like a convincingly mad scientist who is staring directly into your soul, deciding whether or not you are a worthy next "test subject."  It's impossible to ignore this photo.  The best part?  This poster is also inside every stall in every bathroom in the building!  Just when I think I'm going to take a break and go to the ladies room: Bam!

This event can't happen soon enough.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oh right, there are industry jobs for engineers.

One of the subtle differences I’ve noticed between science and engineering is that scientists have an “optimal” career path: after undergrad you go to grad school, and then you can get a job.  The best job is of course being a professor, but some other jobs that require quantitative skills are acceptable.  I think chemistry might be an exception to this rule, although at my undergrad I think chemists mostly went to grad school, like the other scientists.  Overall, for scientists there was a lot of support for students who wanted to go on the expected career path, and not very much for students who wanted to try something else.

In engineering, however, there are always opportunities to get jobs.  You can get a job right after undergrad if you want, and get paid real money!  Or you can get a MS and then a job, or job and then MS, or a PhD and then a job, or the other way around.  There doesn’t seem to be as much of a “right” way to be an engineer, and people who work in industry aren’t seen as inferior in the same way as they are in the sciences.  In fact, I have had people high up in the academic structure stress to me the importance of patents over papers, and real world experience instead of staying in academia for my entire career.  I don’t know if I will ever get used to this.  It’s a small thing, but every time someone says, “of course you should spend some time in industry!” it’s like they started speaking a foreign language for a moment.

The other part of this that has been a surprise to me is that the less external pressure there is for me to conform to a certain career path, the more I find myself thinking about what it would be like to be a professor.  I’m not convinced that’s the life I want for myself yet, but it’s become a possibility in a way it really wasn’t when I was a scientist.  I wonder though, if professors generally know that they want to be professors from the time they start grad school.  Do they get to the end and think that being a professor, or post doc on the way to being a professor, is the career they want?  Or did they know all along that was what they were working for?  And do people decide to be professors because they want to run their own lab?  Or they have a strong drive to teach the next generation?  Or their advisor knows someone who would be a great post doc advisor, and then it just goes from there?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Salaries for Grad Students and Post Docs

 FSP just posted a poll asking about the salaries of her faculty readers- I thought I would do the same for graduate students and and post docs who are feeling left out.  I'm doing 12 month salaries instead of 9 month as it seems to me that most grad students and post docs are paid 12 month salaries.  Here's the poll:

What is your annual salary in US $?
less than $10,000
$100,000 and up
pollcode.com free polls

Monday, February 15, 2010

Abstract Reveiws

I agreed to review conference abstracts for a conference I’m not going to as a way to stay current with what’s new and hot in my field.  When I signed up, they said that there would be maybe two dozen abstracts each person would have to review, which is a lot, but doable.  When I got the assignment, however, there were more than 40 abstracts to review!  Even worse, I listed one of my areas of expertise as (roughly) “combining two or more techniques,”  which is a good description of my primary research interests, but I didn’t consider in terms of abstracts that means the topics I’m assigned are “combining ANY two or more techniques for ANY reason.”  I have yet to come across an abstract that I feel completely unqualified to review, but some have been in fields I only know through coursework.  I feel like I am learning more from reviewing these abstracts than I would by going to the conference.

After reading several abstracts, it’s clear what impresses me: statistics or quantitative data, figures, and references (though the references are mostly a proxy for placing the work in a larger context).  Some people didn’t take the abstract submission very seriously and they say almost verbatim: “we took some data, analyzed it, and found a result.”  I haven’t decided if those are in the reject pile yet: they are certainly “not even wrong,” so is the reject line at being wrong or being too vague to tell if they are wrong?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Failing

Qualifying exams at my school are three consecutive half-hour oral exams on topics you’ve taken graduate courses in.  My background:

Topic 1:
1 undergrad course
1 grad course
1 audited grad course on a subtopic
years of research experience between undergrad and grad school
final exam for this class was an oral mini-qual
many friends who could quiz me on this topic

Topic 2:
2 undergrad courses
1 grad course
TAing 1 grad course including extensive discussions with the prof
generally intuitive subject for me
1 expert friend who gave me a few practice quals

Topic 3:
1 grad class, that I did alright in but not awesome
extremely busy prof who is known for failing students on quals
a few acquaintances that could spend a few minutes quizzing me

 I bet you can already guess where this is going.

When I took quals a few months ago I passed topics 1 & 2 easily but failed topic 3.  Although at my school, no one really said that I “failed,” just that I had to “retake” topic 3.  The way the qual structure works is here that if you don’t outright pass or fail (i.e., you are deficient in just one area), they make you retake the exam only in that area within a few months.  If you don’t pass that time you must transfer to the master’s program.

There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t want to transfer to the master’s program.  I’ve wanted to get a PhD for as long as I can remember, and due to some geographical constraints it would be difficult for me to do a PhD after an MS.  Plus, I transferred schools to attend my current institution, and I already passed the hard PhD qual at my first school.  Being in MS/PhD limbo for several months made me incredibly grumpy.  Despite the fact that everyone told me they were sure I’d pass, I didn’t want to jinx it and had a hard time thinking ahead to any time past my qual retake.  I didn’t want to think about going to conferences.  I didn’t want to think about what I’d do for my PhD project.  I didn’t want to have any big ideas, or buy books related to my field because I might have had to leave it.  And I was spending all my time and mental energy desperately studying a a topic that I don’t like very much.  Perhaps saying I was incredibly grumpy is an understatement.

Last week I retook the exam on topic 3, and I’m very pleased to say that I passed!  It was clear the examining prof was very impressed with my knowledge.  For the first time I’m a real PhD student, and it feels awesome.  Almost immediately after passing the qual I got a ton of new ideas on how to advance my current project and things I could do for my thesis.

As for failing the first time around, I’m still not sure whether I’m happy it happened or not.  I certainly know topic 3 much better than I did the first time, and could confidently teach a course on it now though I don’t think I could have after the first time I took it.  I don’t mind failing things every once in a while either- I think that if you never fail you’re not trying hard enough.  On the other hand, restudying for the qual took a huge amount of mental effort that I could have used to make actual progress on my project instead of listlessly poking at it for a few months.

On the third hand, sometimes you just have to jump through hoops and all that matters is that you got through, not how graceful the jump was.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Conferences: Not Feelin It

Usually I am really excited about going to conferences.  I remember the first conferences I went to very clearly: the ones in my own field, ones in fields I was thinking of switching to, the excitement of meeting people, learning new approaches and whole new problems to think about, getting feedback about what I was working on from new people, etc.  Even a few months ago I was excited thinking about the conferences I could attend.  Now that some deadlines are coming up, I am not feeling motivated at all. I think I’m tired of throwing things together for conference abstracts.  I want to spend my time working on something new and big and awesome, not rehashing the same things I’ve been working on for months with little progress.  Or maybe my data is just uninspiring lately, and if I’m not inspired, no one else is going to be either. 

Or maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How to choose an advisor

It’s getting to be that time of year.  Grad school applications are due, acceptances and rejections start filtering back, and anxiety is in the air.  I haven’t completed grad school yet, but I have chosen advisors a few times for various projects, some of which have worked out better than others.

Here is the abbreviated version:

Questions to ask yourself before choosing an advisor:
Do you think what the potential advisor is working on is interesting and important?
Can you easily understand each other when having technical discussions?
Does the potential advisor value the sort of work you want to do?
Are there opportunities to interact with and learn from many different people?
Is the school well-regarded, organized, and collegial?

And here is the long version:

The most important quality to have in an advisor is someone you can have technical conversations with.  You should be able to understand each other easily.  When you ask a question, your advisor should be able to answer the question in a way that indicates they understood what you were asking, and when your advisor asks you something you should be able to understand why they think it’s a concern.  Communication works best if both advisor and student are good listeners, but more fundamentally, it’s about having similar approaches to problems and similar scientific values.  It’s best if you have worked with someone before agreeing to be their advisee in order to figure out if you click scientifically.  Some fields recognize this and require people to do lab rotations in different groups before choosing an advisor.  Unfortunately, many times people have to choose their advisor without working for them. 

All is not lost though- there are other ways to get clues as to how you may work with someone without actually working for them.  First of all, the topics people work on are often good clues to their personalities.  If you love producing great data, you’ll probably want to work for someone who values experimental work.  If you’re interested in elegant models, you’ll want to work for someone who appreciates that sort of cleverness and mathematical rigor.  Bad advisor/advisee fits happen when the advisee is, say, interested in producing an all-encompassing mathematical model to describe a system, but the advisor is more impressed by good data and running elegant experiments.  People with different approaches to problems can be good colleagues, but the cases of this I’ve seen in advisor/advisee situations have not worked out very well for the advisee.

Secondly, never agree to work for someone without having a technical conversation with them.  Ask prospective advisors questions you have from reading their papers (you have read their papers, right?), or where they see the lab going in the next five years, or talk about a project you’ve worked on.  Make sure questions are asked and answered, discuss both details and big picture issues.  Think about if you’re going to be able to learn from this person.  I’ve had a few professors who, despite being clearly intelligent and well meaning, approach problems so differently from me it’s hard for me to learn from them.  Don’t pick one of these people as your advisor!  They can be great people to talk to about career advice or to get advice from if you’re stuck on a particular problem on their area of expertise, but you want your advisor to be someone that is easy for you to learn from.

Third, don’t pick a lab that is scientifically isolated.  The situation you want to avoid is there being just you, your advisor, and maybe a few other grad students around. It’s not good for the science or your sanity to just work with the same few people all the time.  Luckily, this is easy to avoid.  You can choose a big lab, or a lab that has a demonstrated track record of sending students to conferences, or a school where many professors have an open door policy and there are other professors that do related work, or a lab that has more than one PI, or a lab that has a close collaboration with another lab, or a co-advising situation, etc.

Lastly, there is the school itself.  In the best case, the school is well-regarded, organized, and collegial.  Many schools are lacking in at least one of these respects.  I think it’s important to assess the school on these merits, but being lacking is not necessarily a deal-breaker. It’s just a way to think about what will be important to pay attention to as you go through the grad school process.  For example, if the school is not organized, you should step up your personal organization to make sure deadlines are met and requirements are filled.  These qualities are mostly relevant if they keep students from graduating and finding jobs.  If the school is so disorganized students never graduate in a timely fashion, so uncollegial that grad students are used as pawns in some larger agenda, or so poorly regarded that even the best grad students from the best labs can’t find jobs, those are signs to run despite a good fit with an individual potential advisor.  The best way to find out this information is to talk to current grad students, who are often remarkably forthcoming about these deficiencies.

Too often the advice on choosing advisors that I see is all based on how famous the advisor is.  It doesn't matter how famous the advisor is if you don't impress them because you're not interested or good at what they value most, or if you don't complete your degree because the department is disorganized and full of backstabbers.  When picking advisors the ultimate question is: which one will get me out the door with the best career prospects?